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(EDITOR’S NOTE: This 6,200-word package includes two stories – main story, 'The Back Door,' immediately below, followed by sidebar, 'Bankers ‘N’ The ‘Hood.')


The Back Door
Inside Sommerset Circle, Madison, Wisconsin’s most notorious low-income housing project.

By Chuck Nowlen
Published September, 1994
Copyright 1994, Madison Magazine


I can see them in my rear-view mirror as I sit in my car in the parking lot – all the kids doing flips off a discount-store trampoline. One kid flips, then another; and now a little puppy-dog scuffle breaks out. They’re deep within the complex, just outside the apartment that will be my home for the next few days. It’s shady over there, and the grass still seems relatively green.

Meanwhile, I’m baking in my Toyota – the only foreign compact in a vast expanse of rusty dinosaurs – and I’m recalling what one passer-by said earlier as we watched the kids flipping the afternoon away. “How long before they take THAT away from them too?” the woman said, and her meaning was unmistakable: What passes for fun in other parts of town is looked at as gang activity here.

Sometimes with good reason. Most of the trees and bushes inside Sommerset Circle were cut down years ago – too many hiding places for crack dealers and young cop haters. As for the fountain that used to be in the center of the complex back when Sommerset was a gleaming ring of upscale townhouses – it’s been replaced by two dumpsters and industrial-strength speed bumps. That’s where the patrol cars hang out on midsummer nights after hours.

So I’ve got my eyes open. I’m told that Sommerset isn’t as mean as it used to be, but that anything can still happen, especially if you’re a reckless newcomer who comes in with an attitude or stumbles onto somebody’s business. I’m getting a funny feeling, in fact, about the group of late-teenagers that has gathered a few feet from my car.

Sure enough – I can’t believe this – one of them eases by, walking deliberately slowly, pretending not to notice me. I nod, catching his attention; but, to me, he’s just a stereotype. Deadpan scowl, tilted cap – he’s a walking six-o-clock-news clip. A few seconds later, I discover that I’m a stereotype here too.

“Hello officer,” the teenager responds coldly, nodding back. His eyes narrow for a second then dart away.

“Man,” I laugh, “I’m not any officer, that’s for sure.” I’m trying to be cool and friendly, and if you’re going to be staying for a while at Sommerset Circle, the worst thing you can be is intimidated.

“Uh-huh,” he says in a low voice, and then just keeps on walking. No smile, no wink to his pals or anything. Now he decides to call back at me over his shoulder: “See you later then … OFFICER.”

It wasn’t until my time at Sommerset was almost over that I noticed something I still think about from time to time: During a week of sunny, 75-degree weather, white people seem to be about the only ones who wear sunglasses here; namely, the private security guards, the social workers, the delivery and real estate people, the police officers and me.


A week or so ago, a guy was shot to death at a bar just down the street. It got big play in the local papers and TV stations. So did the knifepoint rape not long after, which occurred just a few doors from where I’m standing right now. The white-brick, 70-unit complex on Badger Road exploded in controversy in 1990, you may recall, when a fire killed five children, casting aspersions on nearly everything and everybody here – the residents, the ownership, the cops and fire department, as well as the bedrock attitudes of Madison as a whole.

Since then, Sommerset has been cast as a kind of Dairyland Black Hole of Calcutta: “Sommerset Circle?! Oh my God, you don’t want to go over THERE!” – and that quote came from the public housing agency that handles rentals.

The image has taken root in some very strange places. The most obviously fearful person I met during my stay was a teacher going door-to-door recruiting for summer programs. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m doing my recruiting and getting out of here,” the man said near the end of our interview. He was in his early ‘30s; he seemed to be in formidable shape – and he was black.

Come to think of it, he was wearing sunglasses, too.

Still, you have to wonder: No reporters, high-profile bureaucrats or politicians I know of have ever actually STAYED at Sommerset for long – it’s pretty much been drive-by sound bites and war-on-drugs public relations. What if the popular image really IS just a big con, a conspiracy of oppression, as so many people here believe?

On the other hand – who knows? – it could even be that Madison’s fabled political correctness has kept us all from accepting the fact that Sommerset is just plain BAD.

After doing a story on the embattled Town of Madison Police Department in April (Sommerset is part of the town, not the city), I decided to live there for a few days in early June.

A mutual acquaintance had introduced me to Carlene “C.C.” Dean, the president of Sommerset’s neighborhood association; and I was her guest for the better part of a month, subject to the following rules: I don’t ask anybody to reveal any secrets about drugs or gangs, nor do I take anybody’s picture without permission. (Some folks here are, shall we say, publicity shy. Others resent certain zoo-attraction implications.) I also agree to contribute a little bit to my host family’s expenses.

In return, I get a couch in the basement, free meals and access to almost everybody C.C. knows – by the time I was done, I had spent extensive time with more than 50 people. According to the complex manager, a very well-mannered former cop named Chuck Holl, the population at Sommerset is about 280. It’s made up of three- and four-bedroom apartments, most of which are actually quite nice inside. “That’s not counting visitors,” Holl emphasizes about the resident count when I first talk to him on the phone.

Ah yes, the visitors. People say that if it weren’t for them, I might not be writing this story at all. Even the local police force agrees that the residents themselves are not the root of whatever gang and drug activity still goes on here – at least not since AnchorBank took over from former owner Gary DiVall about a year ago. (See “Bankers ‘N’ The Hood” sidebar below.)

Sommerset Circle, then, is bankrupt. Most people say that’s an improvement, but the heat is definitely still on. The place is crawling with social workers, cops, do-gooders and charlatans; and the stark, drug-free-zone landscaping makes it feel like some kind of weird prison camp run by a warden with a soft spot for dirt.

For most of the residents, the main thing Sommerset has going for it is that it’s NOT the alternative – the big-city projects where many people here came from. To hear people tell it, these are places that you’ll do just about anything you can to escape.

“The other day, one of the gangs in my neighborhood called the school and told them they’d better just shut down for the day – they was fixin’ to have a shoot-out,” says Cassandra Murray, a close friend of C.C. Dean who’s visiting from Chicago’s infamous Stateway Gardens project. “I saw it right outside my window, and I didn’t even mess with calling the police. I knew they couldn’t do nothing. NO, I went right to the top – I called the commander of the National Guard, let me tell you. And they came right out there, too – they had to.”

Rockameem – the only name he goes by – is a visiting street philosopher here, and he’s leery of me and Madison Magazine, especially after a column that ran in January about a rich white man’s view of race relations in town.

“Oh, so you're the one who wrote that other article, huh?” he asks me when I introduce myself in the main Sommerset courtyard.

“Nope,” I say. “Why, did you like it?”

“Uh, not really,” he says, glancing elsewhere, refusing at first to look me in the eye. “All you guys want to talk about is gangs, guns and, most of all, drugs.”

He continues a little while later – he’s a man with a lot on his mind to talk about: “Man, drugs just ain’t even the point. They ain’t even really part of it.” He’s bearded and stocky, wearing a Star-of-David medallion and a white handkerchief over long hair that ends in three beaded braids. “Yeah, it’s a drug store here sometimes, but you’d be amazed at all the white people who come here to get drugs, the kids from the university and all the rest. I guarantee you that if you’re white and you drive in here at night, the cops will stop you on the way out and check your car – just on general principle.”

Rockameem adds: “Hey, most black people don’t do drugs and can’t even AFFORD drugs. All drugs are about is a lot of white people making money. Take Ollie North, he brought in millions – I’m talking MILLIONS – of pounds of cocaine. And, you know what, he’s going to be a senator – he IS going to be a f---ing senator, man. As long as white people keep perpetuating the myth about us, you create a scapegoat for the ones who are really behind it.”

We talk some more about addiction – now in reference to welfare, which most people here describe as a bureaucratic Catch-22 that they literally can’t afford to kick. I start to characterize the dependence as something that anesthetizes people’s motivation and creativity as they try to stay one step ahead of desperation, but Rockameem again turns the tables: “You want to talk about addiction? Then why don’t we talk about YOUR people?”

After all, he says, can’t hotshot landlords get addicted to federal low-income subsidies? And don’t local social agencies grow fat and lethargic on all the administrative overhead in government grants? What about police departments? Think they can’t get hooked on budget windfalls from drug forfeitures and weed-and-seed programs? Newspapers, magazines and TV stations – how habit-forming are sappy or sensational drug and gang stories when circulation, viewership and advertising are the ice-cold bottom line?

And – even more to the point – how many lives have been crippled as a result?

No, says Rockameem, if anything’s really going to change in places like Sommerset Circle, it’s going to have to come from the people who live there. And drugs are even a peripheral issue when you talk about desperation. He frames his point now by paraphrasing a quote from the famous African-American historian, Carter G. Woodson: “If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept his inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told, and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”

“It’s all about haves and have-nots,” Rockameem tells me. “And now you’ve even got white people taking their own identity from black people. I mean, when I see some 17-year-old white kid all dressed up in gang hip-hop clothes, AND HE’S DRIVING A F---ING MERCEDES BENZ, MAN!” He pauses, disgusted. “Man, I see that, and I just want to take that kid and smack him alongside his head.”

At the end of our talk, I ask Rockameem if I can snap his picture.

“No thanks, man,” he replies. “I’m already famous.”


One morning, I am roaming around Sommerset interviewing some of the fellas hanging out outside their apartments, and, to a man, they give me horror stories about the police – some of which, frankly, I take with a few grains of salt.

“The cops just prey on people here – they treat us like animals,” says one resident, 30-year-old Samuel Clay. Adds another who refuses to give his name: “The management, they just walk inside your home without asking – and this is supposedly private property.”

Another resident, Matthew Brown, insists that his recent drug bust was a set-up: “The police called me on the phone 50 or 60 times, but I said I’m not with it. Next thing you know, I sold to an undercover cop. … I was held hostage for four hours while they searched my apartment. They didn’t even read me my rights. I call that burglary, man. It’s like, ‘Get that black guy over there.’ Then they treat you like a killer.”

Says yet another man names Vince in a yellow jacket with matching pants: “They got this rule that says you can’t even be outside if it’s after 10:00. Now I ask you: What’s the difference between that and being in jail?”

Before long, I am surrounded by people who want to talk to me, and, sure enough – just like somebody warned me might happen – a Dane County Sheriff’s deputy comes hurrying toward us from behind one of the buildings.

He stares at me, hand on his holster. I give him a high sign with my notepad: “Everything okay, officer? Everything okay?”

He says he was chasing somebody and continues by us at a self-conscious slower pace, but nobody here saw anybody else coming through before the deputy arrived.

“Somebody must’ve called saying they saw a white man surrounded by a whole bunch of black people,” laughs Vince. “They probably figured you were in trouble. Either that, or you were buying drugs.”


Okay, you tell me: Who am I supposed to believe?


Town of Madison Police Chief Wayne Romeis, meanwhile, denies the horror stories of petty harassment and strong-arming by his officers. (“Keep in mind that it’s private property, so we’re very limited as far as the authority we even have there,” he says.”)

He also points to the fact that a new era in police protection will begin at Sommerset Circle this year when the town finally gets to embrace the community policing concept that’s been in place elsewhere in the city for quite some time.

Romeis acknowledges that many details have yet to be worked out – like who will be doing the policing, when they will start and what hours they’ll be on duty. Indeed, Romeis can’t even be sure whether he’ll be around himself – an investigation found probable cause in July that he and two officers assigned often to Sommerset violated police conduct rules in the past. A hearing was expected in August.

But one thing is certain, and Romeis believes it will make a big dent in crime at Sommerset Circle: Two neighborhood police officers will be headquartered within the complex in the very near future, thanks to a $150,000 grant from the US Department of Justice.

“A regular police presence will make the criminal element a lot more wary,” says Romeis, whose staff now handles Sommerset on a catch-as-catch-can basis, “especially if we can make some key arrests.”

And, in fact, many Sommerset Circle residents are in favor of new police initiatives. Some even call for steel gates manned by police and private security – that is, if there’s a concurrent end to the ride-in-and-herd-‘em-up mentality they’ve seen from Town of Madison officers for a long time.

“Some of those guys are S.O.B.s, and they always will be,” says Mary Teague, who has lived at Sommerset for a decade. “And the reaction here is, ‘White people will always do us like that.’”

Romeis’s department has been collaborating with City of Madison police on how to approach neighborhood patrols, and the chief promises that the officers he hires will have the sensitivity and experience it takes to do the job right. He warns, though, that neighborhood cops won’t be a panacea.

“One thing I do not see is this replacing private security over there,” Romeis says, for example. “And we’re not looking to put officers there strictly for Sommerset Circle, either. They’ll respond to all calls in the vicinity.”

Carlene Dean and her friend Gloria are sitting in Dean’s living room talking about a recent brainstorm: a Sommerset Circle day-care center that’s run totally by the residents themselves. They’re hashing out details, and with every new stage of the conversation, their excitement rises to a crescendo. By God, they decide finally, this thing could actually work.

They’ll have to train the volunteers, and a mouse-maze of state regulations will have to be navigated – treacherous, dream-killing technicalities will toss up barriers nearly every step of the way. Yet these are women who have grown used to dealing with bureaucratic roadblocks. Dean, after all, conquered a mountain of red tape when she first came to Madison homeless in 1987.

Besides, think what the day-care center would do for the rest of the women of Sommerset Circle, who make up at least 80 percent of the lease-signing tenants. They’d get wage-paying jobs, self-respect and a sense that they have a stake in running their own community. Lord knows there are enough kids running around the complex – it might even turn a profit.

“Unity, that’s the main thing we’re after. We want to build our OWN community,” says C.C., the new president of the Sommerset Family Organization. (C.C. prefers to call it W.O.W., for Women of Wisdom.) “What makes me think we can succeed? It’s the willpower and determination and the LOVE I feel from people around here. In the four months I’ve been living here, I have noticed an amazing change in attitude that’s come about.”

A protégé of Mary Lavender, whose MAGAPEACE organization has chased gangs and drug trade out of several Madison neighborhoods to date, the 27-year-old C.C. has already accomplished one thing: She’s made herself known as a voice to be reckoned with. The mother of three kids – Daniel, 10; DeMonta, seven; and Davetta, five – Dean is a full-time volunteer at the South Madison Neighborhood Center; she’s also Sommerset’s contact person for city and county agencies. In 1992, she became the only welfare mother ever to win Dane County’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award.

And if there’s trouble out in the courtyard, C.C. – who as a teenager lived the gang life herself – will be the one who steps up to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.

“One time, I kinda got up in a cop’s face when they were shaking somebody down out here,” she recalls. “And he told me to back off, otherwise he’d just make up a charge and arrest me, too. But that stuff doesn’t scare me ‘cause I’m clean as a whistle. Don’t smoke. Don’t do drugs. Don’t hardly drink. Don’t do nothin’. They can go ahead and try that if that’s what they want to do.”

C.C.’s group meets at the Sommerset neighborhood center, a sparsely furnished apartment that was donated by the new management. And their biggest liability is money; they’re working with almost nothing, other than pieces of a few grants from both public and private sources. Dean appreciates any help they can get, but she prefers the kind of assistance that includes a lot of involvement by the people for which it’s intended. With many grants, she notes, 75 percent or more of the funding goes to administrative salaries.

“I never put anyone down until I’m proven wrong,” she says. “It’s just that sometimes we feel like political prisoners, what with some of the strings attached to grants and government programs. Sometimes, I don’t feel like they really collaborate with us, either. It’s like, ‘Oh, you poor people, we know what good for you.’”

Which prompts Gloria to repeat a comment she made earlier in our interview: “And, again, you wonder why I don’t even like to talk to white people if I don’t have to?

C.C. quickly adds: “We’re also looking for programs that will STAY here for a while. We want to make sure the programs are for the people here, not for those who come in for a while and then take off when the money runs out or when they’ve made a name for themselves.”

C.C. knows that turning Sommerset around will take a communitywide effort. In the meantime, the Sommerset Family Organization’s wish list is long and impressive: a neighborhood watch, improved landscaping, year-around kids programs, family skills training for single parents, immunization drives, fire safety training, social events, day care and many other things. Ultimately, they hope to afford a paid, full-time staff.

All of it is possible, Gloria insists, if true power is given to the residents, rather than left in the hands of bureaucrats who don’t really have the same motivation to succeed – and who therefore rarely do.

C.C. agrees that it will be an uphill climb, especially when fighting the defeatist attitude that so many residents have fallen prey to under assistance programs to date – and which a lot of people here have actually inherited after generations of social stagnation. Indeed, depression is no stranger here, even to C.C. One time, a public-health doctor offered her Prozac, but she thinks she’s found something better:

“First, you have to identify yourself and ask yourself what makes you happy – what do YOU need to do to make your life more livable?” she explains. “With God, all things are possible. Money can’t buy happiness, and no person can GIVE you happiness. There’s only one place it comes from, and that’s from within.”

Curtis Fowler sees them sometimes when he walks toward his apartment – the drug dealers, the street punks, the guys who took off on their wives and girlfriends, leaving them holding a big-time child-rearing bag.

Sometimes they’ll call out to him, maybe over by the front entrance, maybe by the fence right behind C.C.’S kitchen: “Yo, man, Curtis! Hold up, man!”

Once upon a time, he might have joined them, but these days, he just nods and keeps on walking. The 33-year-old Fowler, you understand, has much more important business on his mind.

Namely, his children: 13-year-old Martine, 6-year-old Terrence, 4-year-old Dorrel, 3-year-old Marissa and 2-year-old Kedrie. Of all the single parents in Sommerset Circle, Curtis Fowler is the only male.

“Yeah, sometimes there’s a lot of stress,” says Fowler, whose tone understates the magnitude of his task. “But nothin’s going to keep me from raising my kids. I figure if my mom could raise nine, I could do it too.” He pauses, adjusting his Detroit Pistons cap before continuing: “Me – I only got five.”

The kids’ mother? Lost to drug addiction for the past two years, although she still sees them when she’s got a break in rehab. Fowler talks to her every now and then, and, believe it or not, he has no hard feelings: “I think she’s going to be fine. I just don’t want to have nothin’ to do with her right now. She’s doing something I don’t do, and I just don’t want to get involved.”

Besides, with five kids, there simply isn’t much time. Bus rides to the grocery store or to job interviews; trips to the zoo or maybe to do a little fishing; he also takes GED classes – a wild night to him is playing basketball in the park, then watching a movie in the basement on TV. Some people tell him that once in a while he should drop the kids off with their grandmother, who also lives in town. But he won’t have any part of it.

“If I was the wrong kind of father, I’d drop them off with her, but their MY responsibility. … Plus, I got some really nice kids,” he says with a smile. “So I just take it one day at a time and don’t let nothin’ pull me away too fast.”

It’s my last full day here, and tonight we’re going to party for a change. Cassandra got her hair done earlier this afternoon – at the kitchen table, courtesy of C.C.’s friend Shakitha Jones. Now they’re upstairs trying to decide what to wear.

C.C., meanwhile, is still dressed in a jogging suit and a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap. She’s in the kitchen, frying catfish for the 17 people who will be eating here: Cassandra and Shakitha, their six kids, me, C.C.’s three kids and three nieces and nephews. It’ll be grab-a-plate-and-serve-yourself, and another of C.C.’s nieces – 17-year-old Tamika – will be babysitting for most of the evening. The three women and I will be meeting at a local Wednesday Ladies Night a few hours from now.

So, basically, it’s organized chaos around here, what with all the kids coming and going, and the cable radio playing funk classics on the stereo, turned up good and loud.

Swaying to the music as she cooks, C.C. will later lead a meeting at the Sommerset neighborhood center, then it’s back here to hook up with Cassandra and Shakitha. I get the distinct impression she’ll do her best to look like the hottest thing in town.

“Shakitha!” she shouts now over a dreamy, production-heavy Debarge hit. “Go on down to the store with Chuck, will you?” After an exchange of money and food stamps, Shakitha and I are off in my car.

First, though, Shakitha wants to stop at her own apartment building on Badger Road – her boyfriend and daughter are among a group of people hanging out in the front yard. “Me and my man, we’re feudin’ a little bit today,” she confides as we pull up to the curb – braking hard for a close friend’s daughter, who lurches toward the street while watching double-Dutch jump rope. A shriek of admonishment from Shakitha, and now the little girl points at me wide-eyed, as if I were an alien. “Who that, Shakitha?” she asks repeatedly. “Who that? Who That?”

“That’s mind your own business, that’s who that is!” Swat, A light pat on the butt, followed by a firm tug of the 7-year-old’s arm.

We drive to the Park Street Kohl’s store for some spaghetti, then visit a liquor store down the street. To save money when we get to the bar, the object tonight will be to do any and all drinking before we go out.

When we get back to the apartment, C.C. is talking privately with a young man named LaShawn, a friend from Chicago who wears a black leather baseball cap with a clock just above the brim. Turns out one of his acquaintances was murdered earlier in the day in a barbershop – the acquaintance, a gang banger, was shot through the heart and through one of his eyes. This isn’t the best place to talk about it at the moment; there’s still a lot of coming and going. A few minutes later, they say goodbye, and LaShawn politely introduces himself to me before going on his way.

“He’s really a good person,” C.C. says of him later. “He just needs a little rehabilitation, that’s all.”

After a few more quick interviews and a plate of dinner, I head out to the bar myself – Purlie’s a local landmark owned by restaurateur DeWitt Moore. There, I watch an NBA playoff game with a chef named Ron, who shakes my hand with a grip like an hydraulic vise whenever his team does something impressive. When we are joined by a friend of mine, a Rayovac line worker named James Carr, I wince when he extends his own right hand.

“Oh, man,” James laughs, really enjoying this. “See, don’t ever be shakin’ hands with Ron, man. Just make him bump fists with you. After he pulled that Arnold Schwarzenegger stuff on me a few times, I told him, ‘Man, do that again, and I swear to God, Ron, I’ll shoot you.'” We all laugh and have another beer.

When Ron and my friend James split after the game, I meet a guy with an eye patch named Immanuel – he’s a security guard somewhere, and he makes sure to flash his ID card to back up what he says. We talk a while, and his jaw drops when three lovely women – C.C., Cassandra and Shakitha – come over and spirit me away at about 11:30. I am then led toward an empty table right next to the mirrored dance floor.

“There’s somebody here you should meet,” C.C. announces on the way, and I am introduced to two white women sitting in a booth by the window. As C.C. tells them who I am, they glance at me glumly and answer her, inaudible under the music.

“So, how come you like black people?” one now shouts in my ear, to which I react with a cocked head a narrowed eyes.

“I bet I know why,” yells the other, who has had more than her fair share of mixed drinks. “he just likes that black …” She inhales deeply, then blurts out, “ … P---Y!!!”

“Uh, you two have a nice evening now,” I tell her. My three companions and I go off to the empty table by ourselves.


A little while later, C.C. simply takes over. Dressed funky-chic in black jeans, lots of jewelry, a red blouse and her friend LaShawn’s leather-and-clock baseball cap, she hits the dance floor alone, mesmerizing the crowd with a phenomenal interpretations of the techno-rap song, “Percolator.” Her skill is indescribable – grace, power, moxie and creativity – and she’s out there for at least 10 minutes all by herself. A few women – including one of my new white friends over by the window – try to match her in the aisles by their tables. But, man, I’ve got to tell you, nobody even comes close.

By now I’ve had enough for one day – it’s a little after midnight – and I take a short drive downtown to try and sort out the story I’m supposed to write. After 40 or so interviews, the whole thing seems way too vast to ever capture completely. I know I won’t be able to do justice to the stories of a lot of the people I’ve met along the way.

There’s Bernard Harris, the young man who helped clear the way for me when I wanted to interview all the fellas in the courtyard. There’s Meachie Robinson and Joe McClain, who brought local rapper “Bigg Mark” into the complex with a few words of wisdom for all the young rap wanna-bes. There’s Cornelius Adams, who swears he’s being followed night and day by a Milwaukee mafia family. There’s also the LANGUAGE of Sommerset Circle, where an old car is called a “hoopty,” an apartment is a “crib,” and the word “nigger” often peppers private conversations with the same breadth of expression as “jackass” or “fool.” The list goes on and on.

When I get back to Sommerset, the place is dead except for two cop cars idling in the parking lot, and I try my best to look like I belong there – meaning, basically, that I make sure to nod to them as I walk slowly and deliberately by.

I reach C.C.’s door, and, surprise, the women are already back themselves, so we sit at the kitchen table and talk for a while: lots of laughter, lots of hand-slap handshakes, lots of hyperbole and boasts of “Ta-Dow!” when a key point is made. An hour or so later, they’re all off to a small gathering at another apartment. I decline an invitation – it’s time for me to turn in.

Tired, a little tipsy and destined to sleep in my street clothes, I creep down the stairs to my couch, and there on the carpet are all the children of the three families – 12 blanketed bodies nestled like puppies all over the basement floor.

One of them, C.C.’s niece Chimirra, is still up, watching Macaulay Culkin’s “The Good Son” on TV. We chat a little bit about the movie, and now a young boy gets up to go to the bathroom.

“Shhhh,” Chimirra whispers slyly as the boy – Kalon, Shakitha’s eldest – trudges wearily up the staircase. “I told him I was Whitney Houston’s cousin today.”

“Yeah?” I whisper back. “And he believed you!?”

“Uh-huh.” Her eyes brighten, and she gives me a devilish grin. Soon, Kalon trudges back down the stairs, tip-toes through a maze of bodies and crawls back into his sleeping spot.

It’s one of those perfect moments – unwitnessed, I note to myself, by any of the TV and newspaper reporters, affluent magazine columnists, politicians, cops and others who have vilified Sommerset Circle without ever spending significant time with the people who live here.

Chimirra’s stifled giggle is the last thing I hear before drifting off into dreamland myself.



At a downtown meeting of Madison housing experts, the conversation turns to federal rent subsidies and low-income landlords – at which point Town of Madison Chairman Mike Theisen focuses squarely on Sommerset’s former owner.

“Let’s face it, Sommerset Circle was a temporary bailout for Gary DiVall,” Theisen says, referring to the man who lost the property to foreclosure in 1993, shortly after his securities license was revoked for improperly diverting investors’ money.

DiVall resents Theisen’s charge, but it’s an opinion shared by many in South Madison, especially other landlords. They note that monthly rents at Sommerset are among the highest in the area -- about $700 for a four-bedroom apartment, of which the federal government picks up all but a small portion, sometimes as little as $40. And they wonder just how much of the subsidies DiVall applied to other parts of his real estate empire – which took in an estimated $80 million overall in the late-‘80s – leaving Sommerset poorly managed and susceptible to decay.

DiVall points to a US Department of Housing and Urban Development audit a couple of years ago that showed “everything was exactly as it should have been,” and he adds that he spent a bundle on private security – not to mention insurance, which cost five times more than at other developments.

But even DiVall admits that Sommerset fell into disrepair under his stewardship and that he did little to screen out bad-actor tenants. This, in turn, allowed throngs of people into the complex who were more interested in drug trade and mayhem than a new, better life away from big-city woes.

“The whole idea was to provide much-needed family housing for people who otherwise couldn’t afford it,” he says. “But I have to admit that we didn’t have a good handle on what it would be like to manage a population that was totally different than anything we were familiar with. … Frankly, eight to 10 years ago, I don’t think anybody in Madison did.”

AnchorBank, DiVall’s primary local lender, pulled the plug in April of 1993: A group of investors led by DiVall owed the bank $1.8 million in principal and more than $27,000 in late charges and interest on the Sommerset property, which was assessed at one time at $1.7 million.

A month earlier, the securities licenses of DiVall and partner Paul Magnuson were revoked after records indicated, among other things, that the two men had transferred at least $141,742 between the partnership that owned Sommerset and other investors.

“The rest of us, if we can’t make it, we have to be creative and get by somehow. I’ve done background checks for tenants at my property all along,” says one South Side landlord who requested anonymity. “People like Gary DiVall operate quite differently. The attitude is: Hey, if you’ve owned a place for 10 years and you’ve let it run down, you can just go to the government and get some help.”

The landlord adds: “It’s like a high school kid who borrows money for a car, crashes it, and then asks the bank for more money to fix it. Now, repeat that a few times, and pretty soon the bank is into him for a whole lot more than the car could ever be worth.”

In the aftermath of the foreclosure, it’s a matter of cutting losses, says Dick Riddle, assistant vice president of credit services at AnchorBank. The Dane County Housing Authority now handles rentals. Background checks have been implemented for potential tenants; a new management company and security company have been hired; and a $175,000 HUD drug abatement grant is in the works at Sommerset. Riddle also credits a new breed of residents with doing their part to “redeem” the property.

Experts have been working on an appraisal since Anchor took over, and a sheriff’s sale has been scheduled for the end of October.

“It’s a little early to tell to what extent it’s salvageable as a marketable property,” says Riddle. “Given the legal entanglements, I think it’ll either be at the sheriff’s sale or immediately after that people will come forward about buying it. So, under the circumstances, our attitude will have to be to wait and see.”

– Chuck Nowlen


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